Several years ago, the University of Michigan School of Public Health and the Prevention Research Center of Michigan developed an after-school and summer program called Youth Empowerment Solutions for Peaceful Communities (YES). The goal of this study was to empower seventh and eighth grade students from different backgrounds to plan and execute neighborhood beautification projects with adult support and assess the YES projects’ impact on the students and the community. The study was conducted in Flint, Michigan. Students were randomly selected for the program, including ones with poor academic and disciplinary records.
Individual projects ranged from creating public murals to picking up litter to beautifying a park. Researchers measured changes in crime and beautification in the general area of the projects.
The most significant result was a 50% reduction in the violent crime rate near the community park that had been beautified (shown below). Landscaping and lawn maintenance near several other project sites suggests that beautification efforts have a contagious effect, creating a greater sense of neighborhood pride.
Rosa Parks Peace Park, Flint, Michigan, after YES program beautification effort.
At the individual level, children who participated in the YES program were much more likely to report nonviolent conflict avoidance and resolution behaviors than students who did not participate. They also reported few instances of victimization. This seems like a significant finding to me since it suggests that the students in the program became more empowered and responsible in other aspects of their lives, as well.
Thomas Reischl, one of the study co-authors indicated that addressing youth violence is not just about changing the kids. It’s about empowering them, with adult supervision, to change the communities in which the violence occurs.
Similar findings occurred when thousands of vacant lots in Philadelphia were cleared and planted by the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society. University of Pennsylvania epidemiologist Charles Branas noted that not only did the beauty of the neighborhoods improve, but area gun violence declined. He suggested that the reduction in gun violence may have occurred due to a combination of greater community connection in the areas around the vacant lots and fewer locations to hide illegal weapons. He pointed out that the findings support the ‘broken windows theory’ which suggests that a more orderly environment will lead to lower area crime.
Vacant lot in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, before clearing and planting.
The same Philadelphia lot, after the clean-up effort.
In Baltimore, a study found that greater tree cover resulted in lower crime. Essentially, greater tree planting in a neighborhood suggests that the community is cared for and that the residents value it enough to call the police, if they see an act of vandalism or other neighborhood crime.
Trees in Baltimore, Maryland neighborhood.
So, what does all this have to do with Oakland? While there are current programs in our community that attempt to impact the crime rate through beautification projects (e.g., Restorative Justice program), we can significantly expand our collective efforts and ensure that beautification projects occur in all of our neighborhoods.
Beautified neighborhoods can increase civic pride and lead to lower crime in our community. We can have our cake and eat it, too. So, let’s put the pedal to the metal, get more people involved, and make all of Oakland beautiful.
Keeping Oakland Beautiful is everybody’s business.
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